This is a story of astonishing determination, intelligence and love, a lesson in overcoming extreme adversity and a parable on the remarkable power of words.
When Anne Sullivan started teaching six-year old Helen Keller in 1887, she met with resistance, anger, tantrums and disobedience. However, Anne Sullivan was no ordinary woman and Helen Keller no ordinary child: Anne was a young Irish immigrant, orphaned, and blind since the age of five and her intended protegee, Helen, was a spoilt, deaf-blind mute. Each with terrible crosses to bear and reasons to be angry, on the face of it their collaboration looked to be pretty unpromising. Yet, within weeks, Anne had ‘tamed’ the troubled child and Helen went on to become an author, lecturer, political activist and celebrity.
Anne Sullivan’s family had emigrated to the States from Ireland during the potato famine. Taking their poverty with them, it was a hard life made worse for Anne when she contracted trachoma, an eye disease, which rendered her more or less blind and with chronic pain. Three years later, her mother died and, subsequently, her father abandoned her and her siblings, leaving them to seek refuge. Anne and her brother, Jimmie, went to Tewksbury Almshouse, a home for the poor in Massachusetts.
Dirty, over-crowded, run down, and infamous for its rumoured cruelty and perversions, the home, which housed alcoholics and ‘the pauper insane’, as well as poor Irish Catholics, took the life of her brother, leaving Anne alone in the world.
Looking back on those days, Anne wrote In Foolish Remarks of a Foolish Woman, how the home had left “ugly blots scored upon my brain… At times, melancholy without reason grips me as in a vice [sic]. A word, an odd inflection, the way somebody crosses the street, brings all the past before me with such amazing clearness and completeness, my heart stops beating for a moment.”
Moving on to the Perkins School for the Blind, Anne found her lack of social graces and tendency to challenge the rules, left her at odds with her peers, not to mention some of the teachers. However, the school’s director thought highly of Anne and, by introducing the feisty, volatile, but extremely bright young woman to her new challenging and equally smart pupil, they both met their matches.
Twenty-one year old Anne wasn’t yet a teacher when she met Helen, who lost her sight and hearing after a serious illness, possibly meningitis or scarlet fever, when she was 19 months old. The young Anne had no clear idea how to teach someone to communicate with the world who was without hearing, sight or speech. However, Helen had three senses in perfect working order – touch, taste and smell.
Her parents, kindly but misguided and without a clue how to deal with their unruly daughter, had indulged her senses of taste and smell by mollifying her with copious amounts of candy, using it as a bribe, a soother and a reward. Unsurprisingly then, Helen was spoilt to the point where she had become a monster and Anne quickly realised that a key to opening up her world, and the most urgent, was obedience.
Writing to a friend, Sophia Hopkins, Anne wrote:
“As I began to teach her, I was beset by many difficulties. She wouldn’t yield a point without contesting to the bitter end. I couldn’t coax her or compromise with her. To get her to do the simplest thing, such as combing her hair or washing her hands or buttoning her boots, it was necessary to use force and, of course, a distressing scene followed. I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal and, the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love too, enter the mind of the child.”
Having gained Helen’s obedience, Anne concentrated on the sense of touch and got down to the task of teaching her finger spelling by signing in her palm. W-a-t-e-r was the first word Helen understood. From there, the learning developed with amazing speed.
“It is wonderful how words generate ideas. Every new word Helen learns seems to carry with it the necessity for many more. Her mind grows through its ceaseless activity,” wrote Anne.
By the age of ten, Helen could read Braille and use manual sign language. Now she wanted to learn to speak. Lessons at a school for the deaf in Boston taught her the basics and Anne continued tutoring using a system whereby Helen would touch Anne’s cheek while feeling her vocal vibrations. It worked up to a point but, despite working at it for decades, Helen always battled to make her speech comprehendible.
By the late 1890s, Helen and Anne’s achievements were becoming famous. Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor and at the time, teacher of the deaf, contacted a newspaper about them and sophisticated Bostonians began asking to meet the extraordinary teacher and her pupil. Among them was Mark Twain who dubbed Anne ‘the miracle worker’, the title used for a 2000 TV drama about the pair.
Anne went with Helen to the Radcliffe College in 1900 where she manually signed all the class lectures. Later, she and her husband-to-be, John Macy, whom the women had met while at Radcliffe, helped Helen to write her first book, The Story of my Life.
After the marriage, the three lived together and although Helen’s career thrived as she became well known as a political and social activist, long lecture tours on which Anne accompanied Helen, served to end the marriage of Mr and Mrs Macy.
Evidently, Helen couldn’t live the life she wanted without Anne and until the latter’s death in 1936, the two women were constant companions. Helen Keller died in 1968 at the age of 88. The ashes of both are interred at the National Cathedral of Washington DC, a significant honour.